Tag Archives: ross douthat

A Bunch of Good Journalism, 4/11/18

11 Apr

I’ve been reading a lot of random stuff this week. Here are links to some of it.

In my dreams this might become a weekly or semi-weekly feature, though that also requires me to read and collect enough interesting things over the course of a week, and these things will need to be linkable from a blog. (My book-reading goes in fits and burst these days, as I sometimes spend days buried in print, and then lapse into weeks of nothing but articles on the screen, or in print editions of magazines.) I’ll do my best to collect a wide range of thought on timely topics, though I make no claim that they will aspire to some sort of balance, and much good writing is not necessarily timely (or always is). I will even resist the urge to take potshots at Mark Zuckerberg as part of this, even though this week’s events have teed me up there. The intent is really just to collect good, thoughtful journalism.

No, instead of any take on Facebook, I’ll direct readers to the most jarring thing to hit the presses this week: Junot Diaz’s confessional on the abuse he endured as a child, and how it left him sexually broken for years and years thereafter. It’s a searing take on how trauma can linger, and is a valuable window into human brokenness and sympathy, which can be all too rare in highly charged times. It deserves to be read a billion times more than the latest piece on why Donald Trump is destroying America/is its savior.

Sticking with the New Yorker, we come to Vinson Cunningham’s review of Ross Douthat’s new book, To Change the Church, which is a critique of the direction of the Catholic faith under Pope Francis. The review is one of the most clear-eyed takes on Catholicism in recent popular press, and engages the Church as the complicated institution that it is, instead of trying to cram a take on the church into a liberal or conservative worldview. (I’m not Catholic, but I dabble in Catholic circles more than anywhere else.) Cunningham seems to share my appreciation of Douthat, who is a master of poking holes into liberal orthodoxy and making people think, while also delivering valuable critiques to his book within a historical context. The concluding stab pairs nicely with Diaz’s piece, and points to something that turns off at least one person with some curiosity about the Church far more than any doctrinal debate ever could.

Okay, fine, I’ll find one article about Trump: David Brooks, another member of the Times‘s Endangered Conservatives Club, speaks to the failures of  Never Trumpism in his Tuesday column. I’ve defended David in the past and have him to thank for a supporting role in my drift into my current career trajectory, but have found him a frustrating columnist in the Trump Era. He’s at his best when doing pop sociology and reviewing others’ scholarly work, not when he’s trying to mount a defense of a mushy view of the American republic from his privileged throne. (He said he was going to make a better effort to understand his country post-election, but evidence of any such effort is pretty thin.) This time around, though, he’s exactly on point as to why the forces arrayed against Trump, whether on the left or conservative critics such as himself, have failed, and will continue to fail unless they change tack.

Or maybe the issue is just baked into the media. Over at The American Conservative, Telly Davidson provides a take on a dust-up over Kevin Williamson, the National Review writer who was hired by the Atlantic for a hot second before the Atlantic got cold feet over his comments on. Williamson is a firebrand who likes to unsettle people; I quoted the piece that put him on my radar when he took a conservative angle to blast the working class white people who became a focal point among the chattering classes during the 2016 election season. I’m ambivalent on all of this; my instinct is usually to appreciate a skilled writer who brings an original perspective, yet I’m also not really a fan of Williamson’s level of bombast, and while the Atlantic‘s waffling elicits an eye roll, he largely dug his own grave. But, whatever one thinks of Williamson’s current employment status, Davidson is on to something in discussing the broader media environment in the time of clickbait. It’s broad brush writing, and there are obvious exceptions, but it’s also a very fair diagnosis of an industry that deserves much of the criticism it has merited in recent years. So quit reading all that junk and stick to intellectually curious blogs.

Lest we get down on journalism, though, here’s Roger Cohen from a couple of weeks ago, writing beautifully about the importance of his craft. I make no claim to being a journalist, but it does get at why I write, and is a reminder of how a lifetime of observing can burst forth in a few moments of clarity that, with any luck, will mean something to someone, somewhere. We’re drowning in supposed journalism today, but a few pieces really do pierce through the endless news cycle and the default cynicism that seems to pervade an era. May we continue to find those pieces, whether in the Times or some local rag, and share them as widely as we can.

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A New World Disorder

3 Sep

Let’s take a step back from the Syrian intervention debate for a moment here, play some pop poly sci, and explore what the ongoing crisis means for world politics. Put simply, it could well be the end of the post-Cold War Pax Americana, and a sign of a much more complex world. Of course, some people have been talking about this for a long time. The most famous is probably Fareed Zakaria, who wrote a bestselling book about it five years ago. As early as the mid-1990s, Samuel Huntington was imagining creative new ways in which people might fight each other, absent any Cold War ideological battle lines to separate each other.

The people making these arguments usually framed them against the narrative of the hegemony of liberal democracy and capitalism, made famous by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. It was a great title for grabbing people’s attention, though it also led a lot of people to misunderstand him. We’ll save that argument for some other time and say that, quite simply, things looked pretty good if you were a proponent of liberal democracy and capitalism at the end of the Cold War. The communists were done for, and authoritarians were falling across Europe, Latin America, and even in a few other places. The European Union was taking the next step, NAFTA was in the works, and the Gulf War had shown that no one could really mess with the United States military. In an increasingly interconnected world, there were no obvious alternatives. Sure, there were some angry Muslims out there who weren’t too fond of liberal modernity who might blow a few things up, and yes, democratization would have to come in bumps and lurches in many places. But it was hard to conceive of another ideology that might be applicable to the entire world. The biggest questions were over how to make all that integration happen—would it simply be economic, or political as well?—and how to deal with the people and countries that didn’t take off on the right path right away.

Fast forward to 2003 or so, and the narrative still pretty much applies. Yes, some angry Muslims blew some things up, but the U.S. pursued them into Afghanistan and knocked off their patrons and made its message pretty clear. The rest of the world pretty much had the U.S.’s back. The E.U. had itself some shiny new coins. Democracy was lurching ahead in Latin America and in Africa; only in the Middle East were things not really showing signs of moving in the “right” direction. So the U.S. went in and tried to do something about it.

Ten years later, we know that didn’t work so well. Iraq is no shining beacon of democracy in the Middle East, and if anything, the invasion simply added to the regional instability. Though it did little to truly undermine global capitalism, the financial crisis was very disruptive for the countries that had been bankrolling the march of liberal democracy. This was especially true in the troubled Eurozone, though the United States had its own set of issues, especially as the country in the lonely throne atop the world order. The failures of the Bush Era now evident, Barack Obama was elected to usher in a new foreign policy; two years after that, voters decided they didn’t much care about foreign policy when the economy was still not moving much, and in came the Tea Party—which, whatever else one might say about it, by in large has little interest in the nuances of geopolitics. The global vision seemed to be collapsing in on itself, as everyone was too busy dealing with their own crap to bother with saving other people.

A few months later, though, there was reason for hope again. Finally, the dominoes were beginning to fall in the Middle East: spontaneous, popular protests began to weaken the entrenched autocracies, the most notable being Egypt, a regional power. Killing Osama bin Laden was a nice cherry on top, too. Hey, maybe the dream wasn’t dead after all. When it became clear the popular revolt in Libya was going to need a bit of a nudge to knock off its ugly autocrat, the U.S. and its friends were happy to lend a hand. Once again, freedom was on the march.

Fast forward again, and the hopes of the liberal democrats have again gone unfulfilled. The Libya intervention effectively destabilized Mali. Egypt’s “revolution” now looks more like a series of coups coupled with huge protests, and no one has any idea what the endgame will be there. Perhaps even more significant now, though, is Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has shown he is willing to fight to the death in his own civil war. The worldwide debate over how to respond shows just how troubled the world order is:

-Existing international institutions have no real mechanism to react. There is no way to punish chemical weapons users from some sort of international, objective position up on high. This position does not exist.

-No rising power yet has the power or the interest to lead its own effort, with one—Russia—actively opposing any action. If the world intervenes, it will be the U.S. (maybe with France tagging along) or no one.

-A war-weary portion of the American public—including Rand Paul’s wing of the long-united, pro-intervention Republican Party—has no interest in geopolitical questions, and thinks the U.S. should mind its own business.

-The neoconservatives—John McCain, Lindsey Graham—on the other hand, are obsessed with geopolitics, and want the U.S. to take the lead, knock out Assad, and set the Middle East on a course to peace. Failure to do so, they believe, will embolden the likes of Russia and Iran, and let an evil dictator stay in power. The word they repeat ad nauseam is “credibility.” If the U.S. says it will act and then does not, the American reputation will be tarnished forever, they say. (Of course, they never bother to mention what happens after the U.S. asserts its credibility by lobbing a few bombs at Damascus, unless they want an all-out invasion and occupation.)

-As of this writing, is hard to know what Barack Obama thinks. Has he called for a vote on Syria—something he did not bother to do with Libya—for strictly political reasons? It makes total sense from that perspective, as it exposes the rifts in the Republicans, makes them complicit in the march to war if and when things do go wrong, and gives him an easy out if Congress somehow actually rejects his proposal.

However, I suspect Obama is genuinely conflicted on this, which may be why he’s passing the buck and actually (gasp) following the Constitution instead of attacking at will. On the one hand, he does believe most of what he said back when he gave his Nobel Prize address; good liberal that he is, he wants to believe the world can punish evildoers and those who violate international law, and he knows the U.S. is the only country that can really do that. But this is also a man who ran as someone who’d learned the lessons of Iraq: that it will be difficult not to escalate from a “surgical” first shot, that this will inevitably be seen as taking a side in the conflict, and that a rebel victory could very easily bring hardline Islamists to power, creating a far bigger regional headache than Assad ever was. Given the difficulty of the question, some dithering is understandable; the problem is that the dithering makes him look at best indecisive, and at worst a total cynic.

And so it becomes clear that the new world order is anything but the hegemony of liberal democracy. It hasn’t been a clash of civilizations, a la Huntington: there have been hints of that, and there may be future threats of that, but Huntington’s worry about “Islam’s bloody borders” was misplaced. It was the bloody interior of the Islamic world that would make it all apparent. We’re left with Alawites and Sunnis and Shias and secularists all shooting each other (with Christians as the collateral damage), all tangled up in bizarre webs of alliances. (Here is a helpful chart that makes everything clear.)

This thing shows how laughable it is to imagine an overarching narrative here. Some people might lament lost chances: if only the U.S. had stayed out of Iraq, or gotten it right, or—to take a more hard-line stance—nipped off all of these disruptive Middle Eastern revolts before they upended a stable, if autocratic, region. I don’t buy it. Autocracies never last, and the allure of “freedom” is always there, especially in such an interconnected world. The revolts would have happened, sooner or later. Likewise, the U.S.’s window of dominance is going to end sooner or later: if not because of military defeat, simple demographics make this clear enough. (I’m not saying the U.S. will fall from its spot as the foremost international superpower anytime soon; given my doubts over the stability of autocracies, I think China has far more serious issues than the U.S. does that it will have to deal with sometime down the line. I’m simply saying that U.S. power for international military influence is shrinking, and will probably continue to shrink.)

And so we’re left with our new world order, which, it turns out, is not some sort of march toward destiny (be it of liberal or a communist or a religious variety), but a mess of regimes rising and falling all over the place and dragging people into webs of intrigue worse than my high school love life. It isn’t pretty, but no one can accuse it of being boring, and as horrible as conditions may be in Syria, this is also (by historical standards) a pretty peaceful time. That might last; it might not. Further integration and democratic advance remain a real possibility, probably worth supporting when they do not require extreme exertion. (See Myanmar, for example.)

But that also might not happen, and any student of international politics must understand that, for sanity’s sake. We’re left with a diverse world full of interesting messes, and while this shouldn’t cause us to give up all hope of changing it, we do have to respect its complexity. If that makes us traitors to this America messianic mission of converting the world, then so be it. We are not slaves to the fate of humanity: we are free to carve out our own little communities of contentment and choose only the battles that we cannot avoid or that we know will not consume us. We can only control so much.

Edit: Ross Douthat has come out with a good, measured piece that wrestles with some of these themes.

Realizing Dreams, 50 Years Later

28 Aug

Fifty years ago today, when several hundred thousand people marched on Washington, D.C., I wasn’t anywhere close to the world of the living. I grew up on the whitest end of a town that is over 90% white; questions of race were, by in large, something that happened somewhere else. Imagine my shock when I ventured into The Bronx during a visit to New York late in high school, when my father and I were the only non-black people on a crowded shopping street. It wasn’t fear or discomfort; it was simply recognition of being distinctly different. Perhaps because of that lack of experience with other races, I have never found dialogues on race easy. Indeed, I’ve read that white Northerners can often be cagy to the point of excess when confronted with the topic, and I am probably guilty of that.

Even so, it is hard to think of any Americans who inspired more reverence in my childhood than Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK is ensconced in America’s civic religion, complete with a monument on the National Mall and a statue that, while not without its controversy, does capture his deep, searing eyes. He is as much of a hero as we’re likely to find in American history, and deserves so many of the plaudits he receives. But in the worship of past figures, there is a danger of sanitizing people; of turning them into saintly icons rather than the human beings they were. MLK was a complicated man who stood for many things that went far beyond race.

Fifty years later, where is his dream? It’s hard to say. There have been monumental advances in some fields, and in simple, basic civility. But at the same time, African-Americans lag behind whites in any number of indicators, and some cities look just as segregated as they did fifty years ago. Things are more difficult to measure, however: blatant racism is much less common than it once was, and the forces complicating things are invariably more subtle than Southern segregationists of the 1960s. The public policy initiatives used to combat racial inequality in 2013—affirmative action, forced school desegregation, various education reform plans—tend to be crude tools that oversimplify the problem. Ending the single greatest contributor to systemic racism in the current U.S.—the war on drugs—will come with some serious trade-offs; and while I think the benefits outweigh the costs, the costs do exist, and will have to be confronted in a careful manner, if and when the war is drawn down. Rarely are racial issues as clear-cut and morally obvious as they were in the 1960s. From the Trayvon Martin debate to the case of a local black principal sloppily removed from her job, I struggle to believe the motives at play were as vicious as some claim: too often, they seem to assume the worst in other people, and seek to pass blame—something that does not strike me as terribly MLK-ish. (Admittedly, MLK’s willingness to forgive sets a very high bar, and it probably isn’t realistic to expect most people to meet it. We have to work with the world we live in.)

What we are witnessing here is the collision of American meritocracy with ongoing cycles of poverty and culture that leave African-Americans, as a whole, on unequal footing. King said his dream was “deeply rooted in the American Dream,” but as James Baldwin noted in a famed 1965 debate with Bill Buckley, for all its claims of equal opportunity, the future-oriented American creed is not well-designed to redress lingering legacies of the past. (I say this simply as a statement of fact, not as a call for revolution. I don’t know what a better alternative would look like.) No one encapsulates the tension between the American Dream and the past better than President Obama himself: whatever one may think of the President’s record, it is now clear he never had a prayer of re-orienting the national debate on race. Even though his election was a sign of racial progress and the possibility for anyone to achieve something, it didn’t erase the past. Ross Douthat’s Sunday column points out how the “post-racial” Obama era has seen more questions of race than most other recent administrations, with affirmative action and voting rights and  profiling issues coming back to the fore (to say nothing of the racial alarmism around the President himself). History prevents us from ever getting rid of these questions.

In a sign of the oddness of our times, Douthat’s column went on to argue that both parties have much to gain from a cross-racial coalition of working class Americans who have been left behind by the business and technology interests that are now deeply embedded in the political establishment. Yes, that’s right: the New York Times’ “conservative” columnist is making what is, essentially, a Marxist argument. Across the spectrum, political pundits are trying to find some source of a sustainable majority in American politics. Some have said the Republican Party will be dead unless it can increase its appeal among minorities, and while this is in essence true, I think it is also a horribly reductionist way of thinking. Aligning parties along racial lines is identity politics at its worst, and is not a recipe for societal health for either party.

Still, I’m skeptical of Douthat’s solution. One of the great lessons of the failure of Communism was that uniting the underclass against entrenched interests didn’t work particularly well. I’d be intrigued by populist candidates who try to lead insurgencies on behalf of Middle America, but even if those candidates should start to win, they would find a hostile environment in Washington. Reading some of the retrospectives on the 1963 March, it is astonishing to see how much the nation pulled together for such a display of collective conscience. Perhaps even more striking is trying to imagine that sort of rally in 2013 America, and failing miserably. Sure, there have been marches on Washington (Tea Partiers, Occupiers, and so on), and as a D.C. resident at the time, there was definitely something different about Obama’s election and inauguration. But the election alone was mostly symbolic in nature, and the militant political movements are a far cry from the unity preached by Dr. King and his fellow travelers.

This nation is deeply fragmented, and I’ve written on here with some sympathy for people who worry about this. Whether it’s the result of self-segregation in suburbs, the atomizing effects of technology, or the failures of the political system to inspire much confidence, some parts of this country seem further apart than ever before—a curious fact, considering how much more interconnected things are due to technology. The few forces that can hold things together—popular culture, national news networks, a handful of sporting events—often appeal to the lowest common denominator, and rarely offer us much in the way  of deep insights or patient reflection.

But, rather than bemoan our fate, I’m going to look for some bright spots in this apparent lack of national unity. The failures of the political class may lead people to hate national politics, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into complete alienation: as I’ve said before, politics need not go through formal institutions, and re-focusing on things we actually can affect can be quite gratifying. For the first time in a very long time, the American public is deeply skeptical of embroiling itself in foreign wars; whether due to the excesses of the Bush years or the lack of a real existential threat, that skepticism is a far cry from the blind patriotism behind past American military adventures. From localist liberals to communitarian conservatives, there are growing groups of people who find little to like in the crony capitalism/corporate welfare that has become so prevalent. At some point, they may even realize they have something in common, even if it never coheres into a national movement. Keeping political movements on a smaller scale allows for more nuance and attention to particular cases, rather than trying to slap a one-size-fits-all approach over a wildly diverse country of 300 million.

This doesn’t mean an end of attention to national politics: given the state’s power, it can’t be totally ignored, and there are some problems that can only be solved on a national level. Inertia is a powerful force, and the national media isn’t going to change the narrative anytime soon. It will be hard to limit ambition, and many successful local politicians will heed the call to climb the ladder in search of some “greater” opportunity. Still, the untapped potential in local energy for improving everyone’s lot in life is enormous.

Focusing on the immediate also keeps with a key tradition within the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King’s words in front of the Lincoln Memorial are what we remember most, but so many of the key moments in the Civil Rights Movement took place in towns and cities across the South, carefully coordinated by civic groups and churches confronting an ambivalent or hostile national political scene. We should remember 1963, but better societies do not come about just because some people decided to hold a march, or because of a great speech or two. The important work is far more mundane.

Changes in Marriage and the Big Picture

12 Apr

Two Sundays ago, Ross Douthat, the New York Times’s resident conservative, wrote a column about the relationship between gay marriage and the general decline in what he calls “traditional” marriage. While later careful readings make show Douthat never explicitly draws a causal arrow between same-sex marriage and the decline in traditional marriage, he is certainly bringing attention to the possibility. No matter how tightly worded the column may be, its very focus on same-sex marriage was bound to generate a response.

After several critics took shots at the column, Douthat composed a three-part response on his blog. The blog posts were, in my opinion, far more effective than the original column, in part because of their composition: instead of seizing upon a hot-button issue and trying to cram it into a broader theory, they considered the theory and let the consequences of the theory—of which the same-sex marriage debate is one—flow from it naturally.

The second blog post traces the history of the decline of the “traditional” model of marriage, “which seeks to integrate sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy in a permanent union,” according to the National Marriage Project, with a “soul mate” model that puts one person’s love for another first and foremost. It shows how the latter model seems to have some serious consequences; while educated and wealthier classes tend to do just fine, working-class and less-educated Americans struggle to conform to the new model, leading to dramatic increases in divorce and childbirth out of wedlock, which tends to only exacerbate inequality in later generations. This is certainly a problem, and one that tends to unite both liberals and conservatives, even if their diagnoses of the causes and possible remedies vary wildly.

The third and final post is the strongest of them all, as it begins by mentioning everything that has pushed against the “traditional” model of marriage. There’s the state of the U.S. economy over the past forty years, which has made stable employment for younger people—particularly the white working class—much more difficult. There’s the impact of the feminist movement, and greater female participation in the work force. There’s contraception, there’s popular culture, and there are cultural norms that posit marriage as something one does once one is settled in life. Some people even trace it all back to the origins of modernity, and the early philosophers and revolutions responsible for aspects of the American project. As I mentioned in the post about the championship-winning goal, we can plausibly go back to the dawn of humanity finding events that affected later events that somehow lead up to the present day. The complexity of causes at play is nearly impossible to sort out, and Douthat recognizes this:

But I also think culture and economics, ideas and incentives, are all entangled at a deep level, working in cycles and feedback loops rather than in simple causal arrows — and thus it’s a mistake to treat changes in what people believe, and particularly the sweeping generational changes in how Americans conceptualize the links between sex and marriage and procreation, just as epiphenomena of economic pressure. (Emphasis mine)

Near the end of the second post, Douthat admits that same-sex marriage is not the driving force behind the decline in traditional marriage, but is rather a result of many forces. However, he also plausibly argues that the current push for same-sex marriage feeds back into the push toward the “soul mate” model, and that it would behoove society to step back for a moment and recognize that there might be more at stake here than just some ideal of love between two people. As just about all of us can attest, sometimes love can hurt, often in ways we never anticipated when we first fell in love. It is never as easy as it seems.

Of course, one could rationally argue that love between two people forever trumps those more complicated implications whose causes and effects are rather murky. This argument has considerable merit, in my opinion. There is always the question of what we can control, and with so many interplaying cultural and economic forces driving family instability in the 21st century United States, it seems silly to mount the defenses of traditional marriage strictly along the same-sex marriage front. Doing so cannot possibly stem the tide, and only invigorates a long-marginalized minority into greater action as they rally behind the simple, controllable, winning battle cry of love. I would also like to believe there is a way to reconcile an older, more stable vision of family life with such changes as same-sex unions. (I’m sure people have tried to do this, but I haven’t read or weighed them extensively yet.)

However, we can’t ignore the broader debates completely, and very few supporters of same-sex marriage seem to have grasped the magnitude of the movement their cause is wrapped up in. Douthat ends his series by saying “no one can predict the future,” and while I agree, it is fairly clear to me that history is marching in a certain direction: toward individual freedom, with little regard for societal implications. Same-sex marriage supporters (and opponents) often embrace some aspects of this push while scorning others, and few people seem to appreciate how tightly interrelated they all are. This, of course, is a very complicated subject that deserves its own post (if not a treatise), and I’ll have one along in the near future.